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The Alarming New Way You Can Catch Coronavirus

The WHO agrees coronavirus is airborne, so your prevention methods need to tighten up.

Earlier this week, a large team of international doctors around the world issued a game-changing statement to the World Health Organization: COVID-19 is, in fact, airborne. On Tuesday the WHO acknowledged that it is reviewing the "emerging evidence" outlined in a letter signed by over 200 experts. Then they confirmed on Thursday that airborne transmission of the novel coronavirus can occur during medical procedures that generate aerosols—and in other closed settings, including bars, restaurants, and places of worship, aerosol spread "cannot be ruled out." If the coronavirus can float through the air in tiny droplets for hours at a time outside of the operating room, it could mean that your coronavirus prevention methods aren't exactly effective. 

Jaimie Meyer, MD, a Yale Medicine infectious disease specialist and associate professor at Yale School of Medicine, explains that experts have been debating about whether or not COVID-19 is airborne since the beginning of the pandemic—and that it is important to understand exactly what that means and why it matter. 

Particles Can Pass Through Cloth

"When viruses are carried on droplets, these particles are relatively large, so they can't pass through even cloth facial coverings very well," she explains. These droplets are also relatively heavy, so they fall to the ground quickly. This is why droplet-borne viruses are primarily passed from person to person when they are in close contact (i.e. within 6 feet). "Most scientific evidence supports that COVID-19 is primarily carried on droplets, which is why social distancing and mask-wearing work," she maintains. 

In contrast, truly airborne diseases—like tuberculosis or measles—are carried on much smaller particles that can hang in the air for longer periods of time, known as aerosols. "Aerosols are produced, like a spray, when someone coughs or sneezes, or during procedures like inserting a breathing tube or giving a breathing treatment. These smaller particles more easily pass through cloth face coverings but do not pass as well through surgical masks or N95 respirators, though these are often in limited supply and thus reserved for healthcare workers," Dr. Meyer explains.  

WHO Releases Statement

She points out that other viruses similar to SARS-CoV-2—including SARS-CoV-1 and MERS—were airborne and there were thus outbreaks in apartment buildings where the virus traveled through HVAC systems. However, "This has not been seen in COVID-19, outside of a report of an outbreak in China where the air-conditioning unit was thought to have spread the virus throughout the restaurant—as evidenced by the fact that there were cases among people sitting far apart," she explains. "For this reason, hundreds of scientists have appealed to the World Health Organization to acknowledge that COVID-19 may, in fact, be airborne. This is the subject for a great scientific debate because, although the virus has been found hanging around in the air for 30 minutes in a controlled laboratory setting, it is not thought to be the primary mode of transmission."

WHO finally came around on July 9th. "There have been reported outbreaks of COVID-19 reported in some closed settings, such as restaurants, nightclubs, places of worship or places of work where people may be shouting, talking, or singing," the WHO said in new guidance. "In these outbreaks, aerosol transmission, particularly in these indoor locations where there are crowded and inadequately ventilated spaces where infected persons spend long periods of time with others, cannot be ruled out."

The Consequences are Huge

If the virus is airborne, that would mean that droplets of it would not fall immediately to the floor. Instead, they could linger in the air indoors, infecting anyone nearby. It could make it nearly impossible to contain the virus in crowded spaces with poor ventilation—even with masks and social distancing precautions in place.

"Ventilation systems in schools, nursing homes, residences and businesses may need to minimize recirculating air and add powerful new filters. Ultraviolet lights may be needed to kill viral particles floating in tiny droplets indoors," points out the New York Times. "I am very much concerned about the general public and schools and ventilation in school buildings and in dorms on college campuses and in bars and in churches and where people sing and where people congregate," Donald Milton, one of the authors who wrote the open letter to the World Health Organization and other health agencies.

As for yourself, don't miss Dr. Meyer's life-saving advice in our brand-new special report: I'm a Doctor and Here's How to Never Catch COVID-19 Indoors.

Leah Groth
Leah Groth has decades of experience covering all things health, wellness and fitness related. Read more about Leah
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